I have recently come across this sentence: 她惊讶得说不出话来 Which I couldn't understand for a while, but now it seems like 说话 and 出来 overlap:

说    话
   出    来

Is this a normal thing to happen in Chinese, or am I misinterpreting whats going on here?

I might be conflating two problems here, but when I asked my friend, he suggested to say this as: 她惊讶得话都说不出来 But this only confused me further, as to why it's 话……说, and not 说……话. He proceeded to give me examples of a “can’t even …” structure, but they didn't follow the same pattern:

她惊讶得话都说不出来 → 话……说[!]

手机都放不下来 → 放……来

猫都拿不上来 → 拿……上

So how does this work?

2 Answers 2


说(v): say

话(n): words

说话 = say(v) + words(n)

The combination of 说话, was made into a single verb for "to speak/ to talk"

When we want to express "can't speak" we can treat "说话" as a single word "speak" and write 不能(can't) 说话 (speak);


We can also treat 说 as verb, 话 as noun. In this case [说不出] is a [verb (say)+ potential particle(can't) + result complement (out)] verb phrase, and the noun 话 is the object

A lot of compound words are made up of verb and noun the same way, and they can be broken down back to verb and noun elements when you need to modify the verb or the noun.

Other example:

  • 吃(v) = eat

  • 飯(n) = rice/meal

  • 吃飯 = eat(v) + meal(n)

  • 吃飯 (v) = having meal

We can insert adverb and verb particle between 吃 and 飯, for example: "吃(完了)飯" = "(finished) having meal"

My point is, a compound word verb can be broken down back to their original word types and be modified separately


吃飯 --> 吃(完了)(我煮的)飯

(完了) modifies 吃

(我煮的) modifies 飯


说话 --> 说(出) (可怕的)话

(出) modifies 说

(可怕的) modifies 话


出 and 来 is a two parts result complement. You can see it more clearly if you remove the object 可怕的话, and look at "说 ~ 出来" (say ~ out) alone


话都说不出来 is a [topic + comment] sentence

"话都" - "even (a single) word" is the topic

"说不出来" - "unable to (be) spoken out" is the the comment

  • Oh, so the topic vs comment thing property can split and rearrange a verb-noun compound… I have misunderstood the meaning of 出来 here as well, now it seems quite clear to me! Jul 12, 2019 at 17:10

What I can tell you is that this kind of structure is to express emphasis.

'她惊讶得说不出话来' has the same meaning as '她惊讶得话都说不出来'.
But the latter uses the inverted pattern, which is always used as for emphasis.

'说话' and '出来' in this kind of situation do not overlap. What's more, '出来' stresses the act of speaking.
It may be translated as 'I even can't work this simple question out.'

If you still don't understand, don't hesitate to ask.

  • 1
    All right, for instance: 他穷的饭都吃不起
    – Fanxu Meng
    Jul 12, 2019 at 11:44
  • 1
    And let's do some magical things : )
    – Fanxu Meng
    Jul 12, 2019 at 11:48
  • 1
    他穷的饭都吃不起 --> 他穷的吃不起饭
    – Fanxu Meng
    Jul 12, 2019 at 11:48
  • 1
    '他穷的饭都吃不起' is the emphatic inversion of '他穷的吃不起饭', which the '不起' and '出来' do the same function. '说不出话' and '吃不起饭' are the negative phrasal verb normally used and we never use '说出话' and '吃起饭' instead of '说得出话' and '吃得起饭'.
    – Fanxu Meng
    Jul 12, 2019 at 11:56
  • 1
    For '她惊讶得说不出话来', you can definitely delete the '来' because it is just an emphatic word. Thus, '她惊讶得说不出话' also makes sense. As for another example emphatic inversion use '出来', '他累得拿不起筷子来', also contains the phrase '拿不起来' as well as '说不出来'. In that case, '起来' and '出来' don't overlap with '拿筷子' and '说话'.
    – Fanxu Meng
    Jul 12, 2019 at 12:12

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